Abraham Lincoln: President, orator and … amateur astronomer?


The Washington Post

Earth’s nearest star was rising in the sky and warming the morning air when I visited the U.S. Naval Observatory on Friday. I parked in front of Building 1 — completed in 1893, it’s among the oldest structures on the campus, which is off Massachusetts Avenue NW — and made my way upstairs to a high-ceilinged office where Kirk Benson sat behind a desk.

It wasn’t Kirk’s desk. Or his office. He works at the Stennis Space Center in Mississippi, where his title is precise time and astrometry program manager and where he supports the Naval Observatory. But he comes to Washington a few times a year, and he had invited me over to talk about Abraham Lincoln.

As the 150th anniversary of the Civil War ticks along, we’re hearing a lot about Lincoln. Kirk Benson is fascinated by one aspect of the president that not everyone is familiar with: Lincoln’s interest in the heavens.

“I never knew Lincoln was an amateur astronomer,” Kirk said. Then last year, the Naval Observatory celebrated its own Lincoln-related event: a visit the president made in 1863 to peer through its new 9.6-inch reflector telescope. This aroused Kirk’s interest in Lincoln and the stars.

Back then, the Naval Observatory was on 24th Street NW, in Foggy Bottom. It was an easy walk or carriage ride from the White House. On Aug. 22, 1863, Lincoln rode over, and Asaph Hall, the observatory’s astronomer, showed him the moon and the star Arcturus.

A few nights later, Hall heard a knock at the door. It was Lincoln, back with a question: Why had the moon been upside-down in the telescope’s eyepiece?

Hall explained that the observatory’s telescope worked differently from the surveying instruments and terrestrial telescopes Lincoln was accustomed to. Satisfied with the answer, Lincoln gave his thanks and left.

“He was an inquisitive guy,” Kirk said. “He didn’t just blow it off and not worry about it. He wanted to know.”

Kirk took celestial navigation classes when he was a midshipman at the Naval Academy. His first duty station in the Navy was aboard the USS Ouellet, a frigate based in Pearl Harbor. For a time, he was the ship’s navigator.

“Back then — in the late 1980s and early ’90s — we didn’t have GPS on board,” Kirk said. “To navigate, we relied heavily on using a sextant and shooting the stars to determine our position. As navigator, that was my job. Every day I was out there looking at stars.”

There’s something reassuring about those pinpoints of light in the sky. I once sailed with my father and brother from Savannah, Ga., to Wilmington, N.C., a trip of several days that took us offshore. My watch was at night, four hours at the wheel while the others slept below. As time ticked by, I waited for a particularly bright star to rise. It was a friend giving me comfort in the vastness of an indifferent ocean. (Never mind that it turned out not to be a star at all but, my father explained, Venus.)

Lincoln himself saw the metaphorical opportunities in the cosmos. When he was asked during the Civil War if his faith in the Union was misplaced, he replied with his memory of a Presbyterian deacon he boarded with in 1833. One night, the deacon had knocked on the door, certain Judgment Day was at hand: The sky seemed to be falling.

Said Lincoln: “I sprang from my bed and rushed to the window and saw the stars falling in great showers; but looking back of them in the heavens I saw the grand old constellations with which I was so well acquainted, fixed and true in their places. Gentlemen, the world did not come to an end then, nor will the Union now.”

It was probably the Leonid meteor shower that had so shaken the deacon.

Kirk says it’s impossible to know what Lincoln was thinking on his visits to the Naval Observatory, but he has some ideas.

“You can’t imagine what’s going through his mind and the decisions he had to make,” Kirk said. “I think he’s going to the observatory just to take a break from life at that time. For him, it probably was his escape, just to clear his mind for an hour or two to look at the stars.”

When compared with the universe, we are each of us small and insignificant. But the fact that we exist at all ought to give us some comfort.

© 2014, The Washington Post

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